A Feast of Languages

“That, I guess is the language of the Rohirrim for it is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains.  But I cannot guess what it means, save that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.”

The subject of today’s post owes its title to Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, which references “they have been at a great feast of languages and stol’n the scraps” and its content to Teaching Tolkien reader and fellow Tolkien blogger Jason Fisher (http://lingwe.blogspot.com).  It is to Jason’s credit that this website was even created.  As an independent Tolkien scholar, I had contacted him at the beginning of the year soliciting information on education-focused Tolkien blogs.  When expressing my frustration over the lack of educational resources for teachers of Tolkien, Jason encouraged me to start my own Tolkien education blog and offered to initially promote it within the Tolkien community.  With a growing number of international readers every day; Jason, we are forever grateful!

Jason was curious to hear my students’ musings on the following: “A loose parallel that has struck me is how your students are learning English (or improving the English they already know), just as Bilbo learned Elvish and then taught some of it to Frodo. Frodo flatters the Elves he meets leaving the Shire by speaking to them in their own language. Indeed, language is a powerful thing, breaking down all kinds of barriers and opening all kinds of doors (literally opening the door to Moria, for example). I’d be interested in hearing whether Tolkien’s use of imaginary languages in his novel, and his example of Frodo learning and using Elvish, touches off any conversation with your students about learning English and reading Tolkien in English.”

In terms I felt they could understand, I asked my students “as many of the characters in Lord of the Rings encounter new languages within Middle-Earth, how is that similar to your experiences learning English or reading Tolkien in English?”  Their responses offer an interesting perspective on the multilingual community of Middle-Earth and how it may relate to the immigrant experience.

Bifur– “When I first came to America, I think people were talking like idiots.  I bet when Frodo heard Elvish, he might have thought they were idiots, too.”

Gloin– “I know how Frodo feels because when I’m around people speaking a new language to me, I don’t know what they’re saying either.”

Ori– “Each of us has different languages.  Yes, it’s different to learn another language.  When I first came to the USA, I didn’t understand English.  I just thought that I was going to be the stupidest kid around, but when I went to school, my best teacher, Ms. Rodgers, taught me English.”

Balin– “It makes me feel horrible because when people talk another language, I don’t understand what they’re saying like Frodo.”

Nori– “Yes, it was different and hard when I first came to America.  The dwarves met a lot of creatures that speak other languages and they went to a whole new place and it’s going to be different and hard for them, too.”

Bofur– “When you’re learning a new language that you don’t even know, you feel like people talk to you and you’re like ‘what are you saying?!”

Thorin– “Just like Frodo was already learning Elvish, I already knew English because we had to learn it in school in India.  So it wasn’t that hard for me to understand English when I came to America.”

As an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor, I am constantly advocating for my students’ rights to be exposed to challenging reading materials, such as Shakespeare and Tolkien.  For those who have never had the experience of being a newcomer in a foreign land, an incorrect assumption is often made that any previous intellectual and educational experiences are null and void upon arrival to a new country.  I have encountered many students whose parents were highly educated professionals in their countries, but without knowing the language and obtaining the equivalent credentials here in the US; they are reduced to working in low-paying positions.  Both my students and their families struggle on a daily basis to prove that lack of language proficiency does not signify a lack of intelligence.

In addition to creating a resource for using Tolkien in the classroom, I also created Teaching Tolkien as a platform for demonstrating the amazing feats second-language learners can achieve if only given the opportunity.  As readers of our blog, you are provided with the opportunity to read the intelligent responses I receive from my students on a daily basis.  Unfortunately, my students often don’t have those same opportunities among their native English-speaking peers and teachers.  Fear of judgement, ridicule, and persecution often silence these children.  It is obvious from their uses of the words “idiot”, “stupid”, “difficult” and “horrible” that the emotional effects of their experiences learning English are significant.

Tolkien’s world does create a feast of languages for my students to steal knowledge and rich, literary experiences from.  Despite their language limitations, they have thoroughly enjoyed traversing through Middle-Earth and meeting all of the fascinating, multilingual inhabitants there.  Their travels in Middle-Earth have transformed their way of life as I observe Tolkien’s influence in their conversations with one another.

Last week, Bombur, celebrated his birthday.  When asking him how old he was now, he replied “I’m 199 years old!”  My students have also resorted to busting on each other Tolkien-style.  Bilbo really got Kili‘s goat by harassingly saying, “I don’t feel bad at all that Fili and Kili died in The Hobbit.”  Knowing this would elicit a reaction from her, she gave him a dirty look and said, “Well, I’m not sorry that Bilbo had to get old and wander off into the West.”  Of all my dwarves, it is obvious that Kili has gotten deep in character.  As we read chapter six of Two Towers today, The King of the Golden Hall, I was shocked at how knowledgeable she was about the character of Eowyn.  She went on to tell me how she admired Aragorn, fought as a man in battle, stood up to Wormtongue, and ended up with Faramir.  Suspicious that she had been sneaking more Lord of the Rings film clips on YouTube, I asked her how she knew all of this.  “Oh, I’ve done my research, Ms. Rodgers” was her emphatic reply.

Their powers of observation in reading the text are the most rewarding to me as their teacher.  One sentence we encountered today contained the word thusBilbo interrupted with a text-to-text connection, saying “Thus kind of sounds like a Shakespeare word!”  Ori, my most astute reader, noticed that whenever the hobbits meet someone new in Middle-Earth, they always have to explain what they are to them.  Voicing his frustration with this fact, he said “Why does nobody in Middle-Earth seem to know what hobbits are?!”

With an anticipated arrival of the end of book 3 by this Friday, my students are already planning how we will celebrate the completion of our literary journey.  Our picnic permit was approved this week and we are planning to ring in our destruction of the one ring with an all-out bash to include a smorgasbord of international food, volleyball, and all of my students offering their personal remarks on how our shared literary experience positively affected them.  Today we also found a little time for arts and crafts, as they made invitations to send home to our special guests for the party.

Crafty Dwarves

Crafty Dwarves

Dwarves at Work

Dwarves at Work

Each invitation, sent to their families and special supporters of our blog, features the one ring on the cover with the inscription “one ring to rule them all” and a cordial request to attend with the one rule that “trolls, goblins, and orcs are strictly prohibited.”  While we know making the journey to our celebration is not possible for all of our readers, we hope you will continue with us on Teaching Tolkien, as we look forward to sharing the spoils with you.

Our Invitation to You!

Our Invitation to You!

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4 Comments on “A Feast of Languages”

  1. John Cowan
    May 23, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    “Why does nobody in Middle-Earth seem to know what hobbits are?!”

    At the literal level, because they are an offshoot of the human species, and Elves (as we learn in Rivendell) can hardly be expected to tell the difference between one kind of mortal and another. Since the Elves (and the Ents) keep most of the old records, it’s not surprising that Hobbits get missed.

    At the symbolic level, it represents the tendency of the powerful to overlook the powerless “little people” (as they are called not only in English but in many languages) until they find themselves in need of them, especially (but not always) in war. Even then, since history tends to be written by the great, the role of the small gets overlooked — until the small start to write the history books themselves, as Bilbo and Frodo did.

  2. The Starry Mantle
    May 23, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    That was a great question from Jason, and interesting responses. I’m so impressed that your students are still going strong in the Two Towers, where the reading begins to become more difficult and the prose is often in an elevated style. Enjoy your picnic!

  3. Jason Fisher
    May 23, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

    This is wonderful, Holly! Your students are very impressive, and this is also an obvious reflection on their teacher. 🙂

    And you know, it goes the other way too. When I was studying Italian for a trip to Tuscany, one of the ways that I improved my command of the language was to read Tolkien in Italian. Since The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are works I already knew very well and was already very enthusiastic about, I found that reading them another language helped me to pick up idiomatic usages, new vocabulary, and even new perspectives.

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